After a couple of months abroad, it’s good to be back in Montana during the glorious month of August. For my 32nd birthday, we headed to the tiny (ghost) town of Pony, a gateway to the Tobacco Root Mountains with convenient access to a large swath of the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest.
Named for an early prospector of an unusually small stature, Pony was a 19th century gold boom town with a population of 5,000. Today, it’s a registered ghost town with about as many crumbling buildings as it has occupied. As one guide to rural Montana explains:
Pony’s early population reflected the whims of the gold seekers, growing larger when a miner struck pay dirt and dwindling when someone found a bigger lode somewhere else. By the 1880s, mines like the Boss Tweed and the Clipper were yielding fortunes in gold ore.
It didn’t last. By 1918, the population fell to only 300 and Pony today is a bleak little town with a miniscule population, a collection of old houses, empty shops, and a single bar. Still, it’s a haunting place, full of decaying charm. As one might imagine, the town has its share of amusing tales. Many seem to revolve around a former Marshal of the town, William B. Landon, who was known for his interest in rock chiselling.
Once of the marshal’s enduring works can be found near the town of Potosi, where he scrawled “One Mile to Hell.” Near the city dump is another Landon masterpiece consisting of strange letters, Landon’s initials, a Maltese cross, and the date of 1921. Rumor has it around Pony that the marshal did it all as a joke, thinking some of the more gullible would think it was a secret treasure map.
If you’re interested in reading more about Pony, there’s a good overview in Ghost Towns of the Northwest, by Norman D. Weis.
So much for Pony.
The main street eventually transforms into a dirt road winding past the ruins of former dwellings to the North Willow Creek Trailhead. We followed the 12.5-mile loop route described by Bill and Russ Schneider in their excellent guide Hiking Montana, but it can easily be adapted for an overnight backpacking trip or a shorter out-and-back day hike. Hollow Top Lake has great fishing (so I hear) and the surrounding area would make a pleasant spot to camp. It certainly offers easy access to other trails leading to lesser subalpine lakes as well as Hollowtop, Jefferson, and Potosi Peaks.
At 10,604 ft., the peak with which Hollowtop Lake shares its name is the tallest in the Tobacco Root Range. My suspicions as to the origins of the name “Hollowtop” were confirmed in a book I found on Montana place names, which emphasizes “the peculiar bowl-shape the mountain presents when viewed from the north or northeast.”
After an initial 1.5 miles along a two-track ATV road, this is a nice forest walk through groves of spruce and fir. Best of all, it’s mercifully devoid of people during the week. Though a sign at the trailhead welcomes ATVs, we didn’t see (or hear) any. The only people we encountered were a handful of horseback riders led by a guide, likely tourists on a chartered trip.
The trail ascends slowly up to a beautiful lake basin and finishes with a stunning ridge walk featuring excellent views of the Tobacco Root Range. Water is abundant thanks to the proximity of North Willow creek—though the last four or five miles are dry so plan accordingly. The trail passes over the creek at several points and crossings might be difficult in the spring or early summer.
I thoroughly enjoyed this hike. The only real downside is the ubiquitous presence of cows—and their inevitable mounds of shit. Cows were the only fauna of any size we encountered, which was a bit disappointing. The full spectrum of fecal dessication was on display from the fresh and steaming to the dry and flakey, forcing us to watch where we walked. The stench was overpowering at times. Still, this is a minor issue for an otherwise wonderful trail.
By the time we returned to the trailhead, hunger had set it so we thought to try the fare at The Pony Bar. Unfortunately, the kitchen was not yet open at 4.30 P.M. so we drove to the (slightly) larger community of Harrison instead and enjoyed a meal at the the Town Haul Diner before heading back to Butte.
0.0 miles: N. Willow Creek Trailhead. Begin at North Willow Creek Trail 6301 at the northwest side of the parking lot, near the privy.
1.5 miles: Keep right at the junction with Albro Lake Trail 6333.
2.0 miles: Pass through a barbed wire fence gate.
4.0 miles: Keep right at the junction with Potosi Peak Trail 6365 to continue on to Hollow Top Lake. The sign here is a bit confusing. When we came through it looked like someone had messed with the trail numbers. Just keep right. The trail should start climbing more steeply and become fairly rocky for the last stretch up to the lake.
5.0 miles: Reach Hollow Top Lake. The area around the lake has some good camping areas andturn around and retrace your steps one mile back to the junction with Potosi Peak Trail 6365.
6.0 miles: Turn right at the junction with Potosi Peak Trail 6365 and continue past Trail 6306 not long after after. (Bear in mind, Trail 6306 is not indicated in the description printed in Hiking Montana, so always refer to current maps.)
7.5 miles: Turn left at the junction with Albro Lake Trail 6333, an ATV road.
8.5 miles: Keep left at the junction with Trail 6303.
9.0 miles: Keep right at the junction with Loop Park Trail 6302 and enjoy the stunning scenery along this ridge. The trail in this stretch is not always clear. Remain alert and follow the wooden posts. Somewhere around mile 11.5, you pass over another barbed wire fence gate before switchbacks take you back down to the parking lot.
12.5 miles: Finish at the Loop Park trailhead on the opposite (southwest) side of the parking lot from where you began.
Trailhead GPS: 45°39’01.0″N 111°54’36.0″W
Elevation gain: ~2,500 feet
Distance: 12.5 mile loop
Maps: U.S.G.S. Pony and Potosie Peak; Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest Map (Central)
Ⓐ Hiked by the author, August 12, 2016